LOGAN — It goes without saying that graduation losses from season to season are a part of life in high school athletics.
But losing your best overall returning player — not to mention the heart and soul of your team — two months before the season even gets under way just isn’t fair.
Having already graduated five girls with a combined 16 varsity letters, the Logan Lady Chiefs’ volleyball team will also have to make do without senior Delaney Kelch, who is out for the 2019 season with a foot injury.
A young (though not totally inexperienced) team laden with juniors will thus make the trip to Muskingum County Saturday to open its season with a tri match against Philo and host Zanesville.
“Overall we’ve had to make adjustments to not having Delaney on the court,” said head coach Stacey Ballenger. “She is a leader. She has the heart and passion.
“Others do too,” she continued, “but when you have that player who has played at the varsity level and has that leadership role, to not have her on the court her senior year really hurts.”
Kelch has not abandoned her teammates — not by any stretch of the imagination — and will help in whatever capacity that she can while having her foot in a walking boot and using crutches to get around.
And her teammates still selected her as a team captain knowing she won’t be able to join them on the court.
“Her dedication is still there,” Ballenger revealed. “She wants to be with us through the season. She wants to be on the bench. So we’re going to use her in another way (where she can) still help lead and be able to help with any of the younger ones. She can point them in a direction to help them with different things that she is strong at.”
Reluctantly, then, the Lady Chiefs have to move on without their lone returning two-year letterman.
Seniors Lanie Bainter and Amanda Chandler and junior Ashanti Evans are back with one varsity letter to lead a team that has nine juniors and just the two active seniors on its roster.
“Ashanti Evans did big things for us last year,” Ballenger praised. “Not only will she be one of our starting setters, we also look for her to be very successful behind the serving line and provide strong attacks for us at the net. She was also selected to be one of our captains.
“Lanie has a nice, strong attack when in the front row,” she continued. “She is a well-rounded player in the respect that she plays a successful defensive specialist as well. Due to some injuries, we have actually had her in multiple positions so far, which includes doing a little setting. We look for her to be even stronger at the net this year with attacking and blocking.”
The Purple & White graduated four-year letter-winners and team stalwarts Rachel Pierce, Emmalee Dicken and Grace McKee as well as two-year lettermen Addy Rooker and Kaymbre Zimmerman.
All played huge roles — as did Kelch, Bainter, Evans and Chandler — as the Lady Chiefs went 17-7 last season. They lost to Pickerington North in a home Division I sectional final, ending their season on a tough note after having won their previous eight-straight matches.
Still, 2018 went down as one of Logan’s all-time most-successful volleyball seasons. Those 17 victories rank eighth for a single season since the program began back in the mid-1970s and were the most wins for a Lady Chiefs volleyball squad since the 2006 team went 18-6.
Pierce, who signed to play Division I college volleyball at the University of Toledo in the off-season, was the District 13 Volleyball Coaches Association DI Offensive Player of the Year (for a second-straight season) as well as the district representative to the state all-star match.
McKee also earned DI first-team all-district accolades for a second-consecutive season and Kelch joined her on the first team. Evans was tabbed to the second team and Dicken was named honorable mention.
Ballenger, entering her third season in her second go-round as head coach, is excited to see what her team can do.
“There are things to overcome,” she said, “but I don’t want the girls to see it as negative things. Yes, we have obstacles to overcome, but it doesn’t mean we can’t overcome them. We just have to work as a team and believe in each other.
“Many of these girls have varsity experience (several of the now-juniors saw some playing time as sophomores) and some have a whole season of varsity experience,” she added, “so I think it’s more relying on each other and focusing on our strengths and what we do well.
“It is a different team — we lost five seniors — but it’s also we have to focus on who we have now as a team. We can’t focus on what we don’t have anymore. I think we need to focus positively on we have this and this and this.”
Bainter, Evans and Chandler are good starting points at the net for the ’19 Lady Chiefs.
“Amanda did very well last year blocking,” Ballenger pointed out. “Olivia Wright is right with her and has been doing very well with hitting. We’re doing well there. We’re trying different people in different positions as we are dealing with our injuries and some people playing (in positions) they haven’t been before.”
In addition to losing Kelch for the season, the Lady Chiefs have dealt with a rash of other injuries as well in both the off-season and pre-season.
“When you have good all-around players you have to depend on them to go in and do what you need them to do,” Ballenger said. “They all know the court well enough that I’m able to” move many of them around.
Evans, Wright, Tabitha Eveland, Cailin Cook-Porter, Ammryn Roberts, Jenna Wilson, Madison Norman, Keely Fickel and Gracie Swope are the nine juniors joining seniors Bainter and Chandler. Some of those eleventh-graders will split time with the junior varsity team in order to get more experience.
“There are a lot of juniors,” Ballenger said. “In terms of getting people in (matches) we’re going to do the best we can. We do have some who are playing both JV and varsity, so I think it’s good they’re going to get playing time with JV and at some point be dressing with us.
“We have a lot of options, and that’s good,” she added.
One of those options is whether or not to have a full-time libero on the floor. That decision hasn’t yet been made.
“Grace being a libero last year and Rachel being our top hitter and top blocker, that’s hard (to replace) when you graduate seniors like that,” noted Ballenger, “but you want to move the next ones in, see what they have and be confident in them.
“So we’re going to focus on positives and focus on our strengths and work together as a team,” she added. “If you are not out there as a team you can’t be successful no matter the talent.”
One of the things she’s seen early on is good team chemistry.
“I want that chemistry to be there,” Ballenger stated. “I always go back to our Pick Central and Dublin Scioto day (two huge wins on the same day last season). It was an amazing day when they played with such chemistry and to come out of that day winning two games was a wonderful feeling and gave them confidence. And that’s what we want to do this year. We want to have that chemistry, talking and communicating.
“We have some really good leadership, not just at a senior level,” she added. “We have some really good leaders. That’s going to go a long way. The open communication, and the girls staying positive, we just want them to communicate and keep it positive. As long as they trust in each other it’s going to be good.”
Ballenger said the aforementioned chemistry and hitting are two of the team’s strengths.
“We have a lot to work with,” she said. “Our hitters are coming up strong. There are always things to adjust. Our passers are doing well, and their communication in that back row (is good). As long as that stays there and we make constant movement on the court, we’re going to be okay.
“After losing five people and putting a new group together,” she added, “you don’t know how everybody’s going to mesh on the court. I want them to focus on winning but also to have fun and walk on the court with confidence.”